I was recently asked by a Product Manager why the Bath Digital team was building a CMS in-house seeing as it "isn’t central to what a university does". A similar point came up at the IWMW15 conference:
— Shiv Singh (@MrShivS) July 27, 2015
It's a good question and there’s a chance that others might be interested in our thinking, so here’s how I explain it.
It is central
First of all, online publishing definitely is central to what a university does. The job of a university is to advance knowledge, and with digital media we can attract, generate and share knowledge more effectively than ever before. Like every other university, the content we have on our corporate website is managed through a content management system - no surprise there.
Through its website, a university will promote its course catalogue, provide students with timetables, list academic vacancies and explain how the quantum mechanical and thermodynamic properties of nanostructures can be dramatically modified by careful atomic-level design, amongst other things. There’s no part of the University of Bath that doesn’t have a presence on our site and all the content is managed through the CMS. All of which makes the CMS integral and worth investing in to get right.
True, it's unusual for a university to build its own CMS. Conventionally, the development of a CMS would be outsourced to an agency or an off-the-shelf product would be licensed and then customised by the in-house team. These approaches are normal and can work.
At the University of Bath we had another option - to build a CMS, by ourselves, from the ground up. This is possible because we have a decent-sized central team of 16, made up of designers, developers and editors. We have the management, production and technical skills in our team (built up through hiring and training) to develop and maintain our own products - like a CMS - that are built precisely to the specifications of our users.
Having considered the options, we selected the one that allows us to build this essential software at marginal cost, in exactly the way we choose, meeting our specific users' requirements, and to which we can add whenever and however we choose.
This option still allows us to bring in external support in the future if needed. We may in time - if our software turns out to be any good - share it in part or in its entirety with other institutions for their reuse and improvement.
I work with a team of people who are motivated by making useful digital products and services by their own hand and creativity. A desire to make things is a unifying thread running through our team. Being makers (as well as consumers) of digital products and services allows us to be innovative and add value in ways that are entirely in-keeping with our University’s strategy to be a centre of world-class research and teaching excellence.
As Bath makes its own publishing platform (of which the CMS is one part), we are learning through doing and sharing what we learn. In this context, the development of people is as exciting as the development of any technical or design feature of the platform.
It’s a big challenge, but it comes with the promise of a big reward and that is a uniting, motivating force for our collective. By developing our new publishing platform we get to put all our delivery principles into practice at once, test our every skill and do very exciting things everyday. That's something worth being part of.